2021 To-Done: writing through a pandemic

In the first stages of the pandemic, we saw everyone “taking the opportunity” to learn new stills and take on new projects “to fill the time.” Everyone loved to say how “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine.”

I had been doing research for a new story, but no new ideas for how to actually shape the characters and plot were coming to me. So then I tried revising an old rough draft, but again, I stopped cold. And at first I thought it was just me, and of course the internalized shame that comes with writer’s block set in.

As the expected two weeks at home dragged out into months, think pieces and tweets started pouring forth about what the pandemic was doing to our brains. Neuroscientists reassured us that we weren’t alone: of course we were all feeling anxious, constantly on edge, or swinging like a pendulum between numbness and total breakdowns. We were  all living in survival mode.

And survival mode is supposed to last for a few minutes, until we can get away from the saber-toothed tiger. It’s not supposed to last for weeks, months, or years. When our brains are in survival mode, higher functions—like complex problem-solving, emotional regulation, and creativity—shut down. I was so relieved and comforted to hear it wasn’t just me; artists of every medium were struggling, too.

So instead of trying to push through it, I used what tools I had at my disposal. I decided to focus on all the things that aren’t technically creating new stories but are still necessary for a writing career: research, sending query letters, typing up old handwritten story notes, brainstorming, attending virtual conferences and workshops, networking, organizing and goal-setting, etc. I filled two NaNoWriMos with not-quite-50,000 words’ worth of that stuff.

And I kept track of all of it.

Early on in the pandemic, I talked to my therapist about how I felt my current method of bullet journaling wasn’t quite working for me anymore. Eventually I transitioned into using two main platforms: Habitica and Notion.

I use Habitica for my action-based stuff: tasks, habits, and daily/weekly/monthly to-dos. I like the little dopamine hit of reward (XP, gold, damage in boss fights) you get for accomplishing something. I like trying to collect every pet and mount in every color. It was so useful, I even created a second account: one personal and one professional. My company had better not decide to block Habitica on work computers because they would be blocking my access to my brain; I use it to keep track of all my recurring duties, projects, and tasks.

I use Notion for my information-based stuff: links to articles I want to read, shows and movies I want to watch, music and books and podcasts to check out, researching furniture and vacation destinations and dog breeds, crafty projects I want to make: pretty much lists of every description for every avenue of life.

I also use it to keep track of my various writing projects and the next steps for them all. This is where I duplicate my to-dos, just for writing. In Habitica, I get the XP and gold, but then the task goes away. In Notion, I get to keep that satisfying little blue checked box and grayed-and-crossed-out task for as long as I want. In this way, I kept track of everything I accomplished towards my writing career in 2021. Here are some screenshots:

(All the emojis are purple because my Notion is color-coded in a rainbow theme. “Peopling” = pink, “Bettering” = orange, “Aesthetics” = yellow, etc. Welcome to my brain.)

When taken together like this, I can look that inner critic that says “You’re not doing enough” right in the face and call BS. I am absolutely doing enough. It just feels like I’m not doing enough when taken one step at a time (and, to the outside world, looks like nothing at all).

Inch by inch, row by row / gonna make this garden grow

And somewhere in the past two years, I’ve found small ways to unlock my creativity again. Little by little, I’m reclaiming my process and rebuilding the structures that keep me moving forward.

Wherever you’re at in your survival, I hope you find ways to honor all the work you’ve done, even when it’s invisible. I hope you find ways to reconnect with what matters to you. We’re all figuring this out as we go along, which is pretty much all adulthood is anyway.

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